Trinity on Trial An in-depth examination of Trinitarian doctrine
Timeline: Development of the Trinity


The doctrine of the Trinity, as we have it today, was a development that gradually began to emerge as a reaction to various forms of Monarchianism, especially Modalism (Sabellianism). We can see in the writings of the fathers an attempt to explain the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as a concerted effort to respond to the teachings of the Modalists. Indeed, the Arian controversy that lasted 60 years in the fourth century, began when Arius thought his colleague Alexander was teaching a view of God which was tantamount to Sabellianism. Arius was not a man bent on teaching deviant ideas. He was a man who was very concerned about the theological developments which were taking place. Whether he was right or wrong is not the issue in matters of history. We must understand that we need to presume his heart concerning the matter was motivated by a righteous zealousness just as much as Athanasisus or anyone else. Had we known him, we may have found him to be a holier man than Athanasius and imaginary histories will not change our surprise on judgment day. The opinions of his opponents concerning his character are not much value since it was fashionable at that time for church leaders to paint their opponents as black as possible, much like politicians do today. It is far too easy to think Arius was out to "attack the Trinity." He did no such thing. The doctrine of the Trinity had not yet been developed and accepted by the church and this was the very reason the opportunity for the confusion was afforded and the dispute erupted.

Modalists taught that God was one person. Objectors to modalism recognized that the Father and the Son were distinct persons. During these disputes, the Holy Spirit was, more or less, left out of the picture, and the controversy focused on the relationship between the Father and the Son. For example, the Council of Nicea did not declare the Holy Spirit was also of the same substance of the Father as it did concerning the Son. All parties strived to preserve the oneness of God while attempting to explain the various revelations in their hands from the Scriptures. Around the end of the second century, certain forms of "Monarchianism" began to emerge and it is here in reaction to these teachings that we begin to see how the Trinity developed as a means to explain God in the the face of perceived heresy.

Various views of God created intense rivalries in the church. Hippolytus became extremely bitter against the two successive Bishops of Rome, Zephyrinus and Callistus, whom he regarded as monarchians and henceforth made himself Bishop of Rome upon Zephyrinus' death and Callistus' ordination. These theological rivalries created a bitter atomosphere and a breeding ground for men to jealously maintain or attempt to seize ecclesiastical control.

There are some Trinitarian apologists who actually have the audacity to claim the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed over time but was simply defended when the occasion called for its defense. This is patently false and many Trinitarian church historians will themselves admit it. If indeed, the Trinity had been an apostolic tradition, these matters would have been settled short and fast by this simple fact alone. And contrary to popular belief, Nicea did not prescribe a doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed much later by the hands of an aging Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and then by Augustine in the early fifth century. We will here show how the doctrine of the Trinity was developed and not a teaching handed down by the Apostles.

DATE EVENT
ca. 180 School of Alexandria founded. Alexandrians favor allegorical interpretations and the School of Antioch favors a more literal approach. This difference of opinion creates a theological rivalry between the two schools.
189 Victor becomes Bishop of Rome.
ca. 190

Theodotus teaches an adoptionist form of Christology. His teachings would be later called "Dynamic Monarchianism" by theologians. He taught that Christ was not "God" but a man upon whom was the Christ descended in his baptism which enabled him to perform miracles. The sect also taught that Christ became divine upon his resurrection. The remains of his teachings are scant. It is likely his sect may have been somewhat misunderstood and it is also not likely they taught Christ did not pre-exist as the Word. Since they did confess the virgin birth, the idea seems to have been that they thought the Word emptied himself of his divinity nature and became solely human, or, the Word became a personal being at the incarnation. Theodotus also taught Melchizedek was to the angels what Christ is to man. What he meant by this is somewhat obscure. Theodotus was excommunicated by Pope Victor.

Although his teachings at first sound odd, especially to Trinitarian ears, this may be due to the way they have been presented by his opponents and his Christological ideas do have strong Scriptural support. The Scriptures can indeed be read without contradiction that the Word emptied himself of divinity and became a mere man. The Scriptures also indicate Christ became "christened" at his baptism. The Scriptures also indicate Christ did his works by the power of the Spirit and by that Spirit he was divinized upon his resurrection. In the end, it is simply too difficult to evaluate his viewpoint because the information is so scant and what we do have is hostile.

ca. 195 Noetus and Praxeas bring their modalist teachings to Rome. They are termed "patripassians" which means "the Father suffered."
198 Zephyirinus becomes Bishop of Rome upon the death of Victor. He calls Callistus to Rome who is his confidante and counsellor. Callistus was a slave.
ca. 212 In Against Praxeas, Tertullian first calls the modalists "monarchians." In this work, he also uses the word "trinity" as a means of signifying there are three persons and not one which Praxeas advocated. Tertullian writes that God is one substance (substantia) in three persons (persona).
ca. 215 Sabellius becomes the leader of the modalist party.
ca. 217 Callistus (Callixtus) becomes Bishop of Rome upon the death of Zephyrinus.
ca. 217 Hippolytus, a chief opponent of monarchianism, separates from the church and declares himself Bishop of Rome. He considers Callistus to be a modalist.
ca. 265 Gregory Thaumaturgus, a disciple of Origen, writes his declaration of faith: "There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of one Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal, and Eternal of Eternal. And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the Living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sancitification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all. There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever."
"cunctos populos" decree - Theodosius
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